Life is a choice between ballads and bullets, says Tom Jackson.
The singer and actor, most well-known for his role as Chief Peter Kenidi on the CBC television show North of 60, says he rose from a pit of despair after being saved by an angel.
The 66 year old has lived what he coins an “adventurous” life. Born on reserve where his English father chose to live with his Cree mother, Jackson was directing himself toward the church and intent on becoming a Roman Catholic priest before his family’s move from a small town to Winnipeg altered his course.
“Boy, those bright lights looked pretty,” he says in his distinctive, deep, smooth voice.
At 14, he made what he calls a choice to live on the street with his friends and “comrades.”
The early 60s were a time of massive social change and Jackson became engaged in making that cultural shift, living on the streets until his early 20s when his voice earned him a way out. He was hired by CBC radio, which changed his world.
“Change is what you do and what you can make others do if you can find ways to influence them,” he’s learned.
“I’ve had quite a successful life of choice, even to the point where my life found a darker place – a hole in the ground in downtown Toronto,” he says.
It was all his own doing, winding up living in a crawlspace, addicted to drugs, before another choice led him down a different path.
“The creator sent me an angel. Somebody worse off than me,” he says. “I decided to help that person and my life brightened. It invited another kind of addiction, an attempt to save lives.”
This path has led to a philanthropic life that has been honoured with more than a dozen awards, including the Order of Canada, the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement and nine honourary university degrees.
“When I came to the day after meeting my angel. I woke up. I had not been awake for a long time. I could breathe. I had breath – you don’t need much more than that if you haven’t been breathing for a long time.
“It took me down a wonderful path to the realization that this is my life’s breath,” he says.
The first Huron Carol was conceived shortly thereafter to organize some 500 hampers needed at a Toronto food bank 27 years ago.
A lack of ticket sales saw the cancellation of the event planned for the 2,700 seat Massey Hall, instead it was held in a 200 seat bar that had been previously closed by the city.
“We didn’t make anything,” Jackson says. Then the media took hold of the story and the following day carloads of groceries and donations poured in.
“The result was what we wanted it to be, but I went home to Winnipeg with my tail between my legs.”
The next year, Jackson was touched by the need of Winnipeg Harvest, a food distribution centre which currently serves more than 380 agencies in Manitoba each month. “They were in financial trouble and threatened to lose their building, so we staged the second (Huron Carol). We raised enough to get them through Christmas and four months of winter.”
Over the years, the concert grew into a national tour, benefiting each community where it plays.
“I feel good that it’s been successful and raised about $250 million in food and cash – that’s the good news. The bad news is that we still have a job. That there’s still a need.”
This year’s Huron Carol, in Victoria Nov. 30 at the Royal Theatre, includes two acts, the first a play, the second a concert. Jackson says the addition of the play extends the legacy of the show and he found writing it cathartic.
“It was very therapeutic on one hand, but on the other, it’s a lot of fun to share the story. It’s a wonderful Christmas story.” The show does not go into detail of his addiction, instead it puts the focus on the characters that made the first Huron Carol happen.
Alongside Jackson, guest artists in both the musical and special concert include Don Amero, Shannon Gaye, Beverley Mahood and One More Girl.
“I believe where your heart leads you, your mind will follow. … I’ve been given a gift to give. To not share it is sacrilege.”
Huron Carole Royal Theatre
Nov. 30, a benefit for Mustard Seed Food Bank